Noise Intercepted Collaborators

Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman - Writer/Editor/Professor


Binghamton, USA

Why do I want to participate?

Why do you want to participate: A) I study sound and listening B) I love this idea C) I am the editor of Sounding Out! blog D) I think this will invite something interesting into my existence.

Twitter: @soundingoutblog



I got keys in my pocket going jing-a-lang-a-lingNoise Challenge #8: The Portrait

As someone who is constantly surrounded by music, I often think of myself as a collection of songs.  In fact, I even keep an ongoing lifelong playlist that tracks my life through music from the time I came to musical consciousness (first song, The GoGos “Our Lips are Sealed”) to the present moment.  I pick one song a year that captures the feeling, the memory, and the experiences of that year.  It’s my most High Fidelity-like project.

While I was pondering sharing some of this mix for this post, something happened to remind me that our identities (and our sounds) are just as often created by others.  The songs on the list, chosen by my interior sensibility and understanding of myself, may not remind my best friend of me at all, for example, or they may surprise (even horrify) my mother. They put forth a sonic representation of me that competes with–and sometimes deliberately challenges– others’ understandings and representations.

In addition to musical soundtracks or vocal grains, sometimes other aural cues metonymically remind us of people we know and love.  I still can recall the sound of my father’s footsteps trudging down the hall on rust colored carpet that has not graced my parents’ house since the late 1980s.  My father has not been with us since 2011. But still the sound lives on.

My son, for example, does not think of me as a song at all, but rather as the sound of my keys jingling.  Sometimes it is just that simple.  At times approximating 5:30 by minutes and seconds, he begins to listen intently for the sound og my keys echoing down the day care hallway, letting him know that i have arrived to pick him up.  For weeks, I wondered how he knew I was coming and how he was already at the door excitedly screaming “Mommy!”  This past Monday, I heard him and his teacher discussing the keys–”I even recognize them now!” his teacher told him–and I looked down to see my keys, attached to a blue telephone cord, bouncing rhythmically with every hurried step, which they probably have every day at 5:30 for four years now.

So here it is, the sound of my keys, my self.  Since it is 4:48, I’m off to get my boy.


Would you like conversation with that?Noise Challenge #6: The Eavesdropper

I have always had a remarkable ability to drown out conversations around me and retreat into my own world.  I remember back to high school, when my drama teacher tested my secret superhero talent by posting me up on stage, reading a random page of The Crucible while the entire theater class swirled around me, shouting at me, saying salacious things in my ears, and otherwise tried to distract me.    Afterwards, I had a quiz on what I read–and I missed not a question.

What used to be a childhood form of cloaking and escape–of controlling my space when I had no other way to do so–now helps when I work at coffee shops, which I do frequently so as not to feel  entirely alone. A bit ironic, now that I think about it–when all I wished for when I was young and afraid and clutching a book was to be left alone.  But solitary work as a professor can be a little too quiet for days on end, particularly in the summer.  I like the energy of a coffeeshop and studies have shown that the background sound can make you more creative and productive.  There is even an app, Coffitivity, to reproduce coffeeshop sounds  when you toil away in your basement office or at home in your PJS.  It actually sounds a lot like what I hear while I type the hours away–but I prefer having a reason to get dressed.

So for this week’s challenge, I had to consciously focus on undoing years worth of practice “tuning out.”  I found that the conversations I was most attuned to were those of the folks that work at “my” Starbucks.  I realized that, because their voices were so familiar to me–I come here almost every day for at least a couple hours–I did not automatically tune them out as “background noise.”  I realized that their conversations, in part, were why I had come to feel an attachment to this particular coffee shop above all others, as well as how much information I knew and remembered about the employees–who was originally from Arizona, who liked the air conditioner set to freezing, who was moving to California. . .

Their youthful, passing-the-time conversations also induced a feeling of restlessness in me–reminding me of the retail/service jobs that I myself have worked in my life–hawking stationery at Papyrus, roast beef sandwiches at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire, and wrapping gifts at Party-on-La Cienega–and the afternoons I passed in pleasurable conversation with people I may not otherwise have known, but grew to like and sometimes love.  In some jobs, where the customers treated us especially poorly, our conversations did more than just pass the time–they were salve for our wounds and reminders that we were more than a lowly “helper class.” At one job, I helped a German coworker learn American idioms–”my dogs are barking” was her personal favorite. . .as we could not sit down.  Another time, an older coworker, realizing I liked music, told me about her punk rock past in the 1980s and took me to a party in the Silverlake Hills where I met the drummer from Blondie.  Sometimes these were not “conversations” at all–I used to have dance offs at the mall with a friend who worked across from me to the music that pumped so loudly out of “DJs for Men.”

While it is easy now, from another time and place–with much better and more stable employment–to remember the good things about those jobs rather than the low wages, lack of health care, and regular rations of shit we all received from the general public, this exercise made me realize that the afternoon conversations of Starbucks–sometimes silly, sometimes serious, sometimes inane, sometimes while dancing, often about Game of Thrones–can enliven me as much as the caffeine.

You’ve Got MailNoise Challenge #7: The Cues

There was a time, when I was in grad school and living just off Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, when I was cued by more interesting sounds–the tolling of the amplified church bell down the block telling me that hours had melted away while studying (and I hastened closer to death but not closer to finishing Foucault) and my personal favorite, the waterfall of alcohol bottles from the Soju bar my building shared a parking lot with. . .tinkling against the dumpster at approximately 2:15 a.m. letting me know that it was time to put the books down and try to get some sleep.

I rarely see that side of 2:00 a.m. anymore and I measure out my time not in Edgar Allen Poe-like church bell increments, but in 25 minute efficiency-enhancing Pomodoro blocks.  But like the bells and the alcohol bottle shower, at least those are predictable.  Unfortunately, the sound that now cues me most throughout the day is my email tone, to which I have a truly Pavlovian response.   They say that the unpredictable email noise creates responses akin to a gambling high–and I believe it. That low-toned ping gives me an excitement I cannot entirely explain—-does it hold out the possibility of good news?  does it taunt my job-induced solitude with human contact–news from the outside world? does it merely offer a distraction–one that feels enough like work to fool myself that it is not a disctraction? or, perhaps more dangerous, does that little sound promise a fire to be put out–a race to the heart, an angry jolt to the system of stress that I cannot go too long without?

Unlike the bells and the alcohol bottles, I can control this sound–I can turn it on and off. But it seems that, after just a little while of being in its thrall, the damage has been done.  Even without the lure of sound, I already checked my email twice while writing this post.  And in a turn of events that would horrify even Poe, with every new system update, it seems the pings and the pongs return without me having called them forth, daring me to turn them off once more.

White Noise and TrafficNoise Challenge #5: The Senses

One of the most synasthetic experiences I have ever had was evoked by Christian Marclay’s “White Noise” installation, which I saw/heard back in 2003 at the UCLA Hammer Museum.  The wall of photos–all pinned backward, their scrawled descriptions luring errant hands to turn them over–not only evokes static visually, but the sound of “white noise” internally–emotionally and physically.  My desire to turn the photos over was extremely strong, matched only my strained discipline–being in a museum, touching is forbidden.  So I stalked the backs of the photographs, pacing ferally back and forth, listening, feeling, and watching the unsettling static.

This week–I noticed this same sound again while driving around here in Binghamton, New York.  The traffic here is not bad–quite the opposite.  There is only a trickle of cars, even at rush hour.  The problem is the traffic lights, which seemingly exist to create traffic rather than direct it.    Because the traffic is so light, the lights are seemingly set irrespective of the other–and they are not equipped with sensors to flip the lights if there are no other cars on the road.  Having grown up in Southern California, where the lights are exquisitely timed and sensored and traffic is a science, the ill-timed lights especially raise my hackles.  As much as I don’t miss real “traffic,”  I do miss flow. Here in Binghamton, I often wait my turn at one light–by myself, the red light blowing mockingly in the wind–for no one to pass for several minutes, only to get a green and make it to the next light. . .just in time for it to turn yellow and then red, for absolutely no one.  I feel the taunting desire to run the light, to blast through the parkway as I should be able to, riding the green lights on into the sunset, and I hear/feel the unmistakeable “white noise” that Marclay taught me about over a decade ago.



Tipppppppp on the TightropeNoise Challenge #4: The Soundtrack

The song I picked for this challenge, Janelle Monae’s “Tightrope,” was sparked by an offhand about my clothes–an outfit I had crafted in homage to Ms. Monae’s signature black and white gear for the closing weeks of school.  A friend and I broke out spontaneously in “Tightrope” and I realized that was the feeling I had wanted to consider–and feel and think and be– on repeat for the challenge.

The choice of song had been difficult for me, not for the “cool” factor (as would have certainly pervaded my thoughts in my teenage years) but because I am much more aware of music’s power–and I wanted to use the music to “get correct” and get into a good headspace–at this point in the semester (and as a mother to a preschooler and an active scholar coming up on tenure) throwing off my game with something mopey, melancholy, or treaccly was not going to happen.

Because I am on the tightrope.  And its a thin line.

Honestly, I loved this challenge. In part because I listened to the song over and over in my car with my kid–who not only loves listening to songs on repeat, but prefers it.  We learned the song together, over and over, picking out new and different parts on each replay–making the car bounce at the stoplights from our dancing and vibing along.  We laughed all day when he would, at the grocery store or the library, turn to me and quote lines from the song: “‘Now that’s what I call classy brass.’  [pause]  Mommy, what’s ‘classy brass’?” He still requests the song whenver we get in the car (alternating with Bruno Mars’s “Locked Out of Heaven.”  So I experienced the sheer pleasure of repetition for its own sake and my son’s proclivity to get fixated on a song is intriguing rather than annoying to me.  Rather it is my adult quest for new and different and “shuffling” that seems a little strange sometimes.

In addition, the repetition really engrained the song’s emotional signature into my psyche.  I began to realize how much the song calmed me–and I began to seek it out, for example, when I had bad news or when I was late and frantically trying to get somewhere.  it made my lane changes smoother, while reminding me to keep my cool.  don’t rush things will fall into line.  I can call up that same feeling as I type up this late entry–I’m worth the wait, Janelle Monae’s tone says, and I got this–an emotional note that had a lingering affect much longer than 24 hours of repetition.  I did not feel a sense of relief or release when the experiment was over like I thought I did, but rather more firmly enmeshed in the song’s sonic and emotional hold.  In JM’s words, she “put some Voodoo on It.” for sure.


A Roller Skating Jam named “Mondays”. . .Noise Challenge #3: The Empty

The apartment below me is temporarily empty. . .just until May 1st.  This morning, as the sun rose and my family slept, I brought my puma rollerskates down from the attic and out of retirement.  I glided from room to room in the early morning glow, vibing on the sound of wheels on wood echoing off the high ceilings, the groaning and squeaking of the floorboards, and the sound of my favorite rollerskating jams replaying in my head from the days when the roller rinks had polished wood floors and names like Roller City 2001. . .”White Lines” by Grandmaster Flash, “Planet Rock” by Afrika Bambaataa, and of course. . .”A Roller Skating Jam named ‘Saturdays’” by De La Soul. . .


Listen to a slice of my early morning skating session here

De La Soul. . .”A Roller Skating Jam Named ‘Saturdays’”

4:55 p.m. M-F, whoooooshNoise Challenge #2: The Little Things

Every afternoon at 4:55, I hear the ghostly whooooosh of the heater in my office turning off.  This sound, and the stillness that follows, alerts me that I have ten minutes, at best, before I will be able to see my breath in my basement office.  The heat that has steadily gathered throughout the day frees itself in seconds through infinitesimal cracks in the single-paned windows and dissipates in the reliably below-freezing atmosphere of wintertime upstate New York. Once the heater turns off on Friday afternoon, it does not turn on again in my building until Monday morning.

Some days I pile on jackets and fingerless gloves and keep working on into the frigid night. Other days, exasperated, I throw as many books as I can into a bag, grab my laptop and head to an overheated, overoccupied Starbucks or home to my own small chilly apartment where I fight for space with my son’s toys and slip on headphones to drown out the inevitable television show I will have to put on for him so I can keep working toward my tenure.

a room of one’s own sometimes isn’t enough–not without heat. not without mental space to work.

While a small sound, the sound of the heater’s inevitable shut down has become a metonym in my life–invested with worries over budget cuts in the public university system–I am guessing there was a time when humanities professors could work on into the night, or were at least trusted with their own climate controls.  I find it odd that we intervene daily in the production of new knowledge and in the lives of our students, but are not entrusted with the on/off switch to our office heaters.  The whoosh also reminds me, viscerally, that I am only a tiny cog in a large institutional machine–that cares not whether I freeze or assumes that I have other places easily accessible where I can perform my intellectual labor–an institution that uses climate control to impose 9-5 work hours on a job we all know absorbs so much more time than that.  ”Do they want us to achieve tenure?  Then they need to leave the heat on a little longer!” the other junior faculty basement denizens joke–kind of. and then we dissipate, leaving the warmth of each others’ company behind when the cold gets to be too much.



Binghamton, New York. . .the spring to comeNoise Challenge #1: The Pulse

Binghamton, New York is quiet enough in the summertime, when the city teems with natural life–from woodpeckers to mosquitos. Moving here from Los Angeles, California five years ago meant a major adjustment in my listening practices–I once used to fall asleep to the sounds of traffic whooshing down Wilshire Boulevard and the rattle of empty bottles from the bar next door hitting the metal dumpster like a heavy rain, letting me know it was well past two a.m. In the Binghamton winter, when windows are shut tight, I drift off to the rush of my forced air heater.  In the summer, when our windows are thrown open twenty-four hours a day, an infinitesimal hum of insect life usually shepherds me into sleep (when none of my neighbors are having a juicy conversation)–it is a much more vibrant soundscape, at least to my non-native ears:

In wintertime, this heat-necessitated, neighborhood-sanctioned audio voyeurism ends abruptly with the first frost; double-paned windows tell no tales. But for now, the sonic community is vibrant, even in my current neighborhood comprised mainly of retirees: the brush of wind through the trees, the yap of small dogs, the hum-and-drip of wall units, the snarl of lawn mowers and the high-pitched whine of edging equipment—I have learned after trying to work at home a few times that retirees reserve the right to mow any time they damn well please, thank you—and the gossip of family gathered in lawn chair semi-circles two doors down. I knew my next-door-neighbor’s grandchild was visiting two days before she saw me watering my plants and proudly introduced me to the sheepish little one.–From “Summer Soundscapes, East Coast Style” post for Sounding Out!

But Binghamton largely hibernates in the winter–shuts its windows, hunkers down against the brutal cold and the accompanying darkness. Life moves inside, walls itself off.  However, since having a child four years ago, I have found myself venturing out much in the cold and the darkness–as soon as it starts to snow he has his face pressed against the glass, yearning to go out in it. . .he is truly a New York child–and in places I would have never thought to go on my own in this season, particularly parks and playgrounds.  While they may look like denuded lunar landscapes, Binghamton’s parks are filled with the sounds of children on even the frostiest winter days–shouts during pick up football games, laughter (and screams) of sledding, squeals and taunts issuing from snowball fights, the quickened trudge of booted feet in the snow.  The city’s children keep Binghamton’s pulse alive during its cruelest season. Like evergreen trees, they keep our faith in the spring to come.